Hurricane Sandy and the fog of war: redux.

This morning’s USA Today contains a thoughtful editorial on the Hurricane Sandy warnings. The editors point out correctly that the hazard was well-forecast but that problems with labels for the storm – hurricane? Or nor-easter? – contributed to some confusion in the minds of the public as well as emergency responders and political leaders. [My recent fog-of-war post covered this topic and provided a few additional links.]

The USA Today editorial was also constructive in that it placed less emphasis on blame and more emphasis on what to do next time around. This is in the spirit of National Transportation Safety Board investigation of airplane crashes. NTSB provides a thorough, exhaustive delineation of all the causes and contributing factors behind each aircraft incident…both the crashes and the near-misses. They follow with a list of recommendations.

Often these have to do with what the aviation community refers to as cockpit resource management. They’ve learned that flight crews who perform well in accidents or near-accidents also engage with one another differently than flight crews who perform poorly. One big difference? The effective crews are those where there’s little formal hierarchy and plenty of communication, not just during the emergency, but for the extended periods of time between crises. By contrast, crews operating under rigid hierarchy often can’t communicate in the rapid, effective manner needed in emergencies.

In  natural hazards, as opposed to aviation, the cockpit crew includes hundreds of emergency responders and political leaders at local, state, and federal levels. The cockpit crew also includes millions of ordinary citizens, who are all actors. They’re sheltering in place, evacuating, leading families, helping neighbors, acting as first responders in myriad ways. In the case of natural disasters, this “crew” will be effective only if there has been extensive preparation beforehand…and the same governing collegiality.

Fixing some key nomenclature during the critical moment? Absolutely needed. But the challenge is far more complex.

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4 Responses to Hurricane Sandy and the fog of war: redux.

  1. Bill:-

    Most excellent! One additional thought…It’s hard to maintain relevant conversation when the events of concern are generations apart (Long Island Express – 1938; Hurricane Sandy – 2012). I think the answer is that omni-directional communication has to become a habit, and the norm for communities. It’s less important what that communication is about, and much more important that the lines of communication are open and used frequently, and that there is mutual trust. In a connected world, we need to strengthen connections and build new ones all the time.

  2. Rob Dale says:

    My concern with the editorial and your blogpost is that none of the “conclusions” are based on actual data… “Perhaps” the Mayor didn’t emphasize the threat because of the warning change. “Maybe” the medical official didn’t evacuate because of the terminology.

    It’s been 6 weeks since Sandy, and I have yet to see anyone come forward with “Mayor Smith did not issue an evacuation because of the lack of a hurricane warning.”

    I’m not saying the conclusion is invalid, but I hate seeing people come to that conclusion without even one shred of evidence. In scientific discussions, you need to bring that along…

    • Thanks for a thoughtful comment, Rob. Your frustration is understandable; I sympathize. It might be possible to get the hard answer you seek, but in matters like these it seems difficult. When people share their thought process after the fact it can be colored by the outcome, etc…I’ve tried to be clear in this blog that there’s a lot of opinion…refer you to the Darwin quote on the home page. Would be interested in your further thoughts, especially as to how we might get noncontroversial evidence with regard to issues such as these.

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